Photographing The Northern Lights: An Interview with Martin Kulhavy

Northern Lights Photography by Martin Kulhavy
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“Photography is not a hobby for me, it’s a lifestyle.” Martin’s passion for photography is palpable; he tells us of nights spent sleeping in the boot of his car, scaling Arctic mountains by torchlight, and the isolation of camping alone in sub-zero temperatures. And it’s all for the photographs.

We first met Martin Kulhavy at last year’s Photography Show in Birmingham. Already a fan of CEWE, he came to our stand to show us his incredible photo book, showcasing the stunning results of his time spent scaling the freezing mountains of Lofoten in the hopes of capturing the Northern Lights at their best. His results speak for themselves.

“That was the whole goal of the trip; to capture the Northern Lights.” He tells us of his Arctic adventure in Lofoten, a wild and sparsely populated Norwegian archipelago, with a camera pointed skyward. “You have to get further off the beaten track if you want to capture something really special. Anybody can stop their car by the road and take a photo… but if you spend three hours climbing to the top of a mountain with all of your camera and camping equipment, in the arctic winter at night, then the reward will be visible in your photograph.”

How to photo the northern lights

Finding Photography Inspiration

Martin is no stranger to exploring further off the beaten track to get the perfect picture. But finding his muse in the Aurora Borealis inspired him to go the extra mile (and then 1200 more!) to capture them in stunning detail.

“I saw the Northern Lights for the first time in Scotland, back in April of 2015. It was a rare event, and I was only there for a week!”

Staying in a hostel on the Isle of Skye, Martin had spent five days exploring the island and taking photographs, before one evening the hostel owner excitedly told him to bring his camera outside to capture the light show that is rarely visible in Scotland.

“From that moment I spent every evening and every night outside. That was the first time I saw the Northern Lights in my life, and once you see them, you want to see them again.”

Once bitten by the bug, Martin began planning his Norwegian excursion, not wanting to leave a second sighting up to chance.

“In Scotland you must be very lucky. In Norway, you just need a combination of clear sky and some solar activity. But I knew if I wanted to be sure to see them again, it’s not something you can guarantee in a week, or in two weeks. To have a good chance at getting the photographs I wanted, I’d have to spend a full month there.”

how to photo northern lights: image by Martin Kulhavy

How To Photograph The Northern Lights

In order for a photographer to capture the Aurora Borealis, it’s all about planning and preparation. We asked Martin for his top tips for photographing the Northern Lights.

Timing

“The best times to capture the Northern Lights is around the Equinoxes, so late February to the beginning of March, and again from late September to the beginning of October. I was there for both; one month in April and again for five weeks in autumn.

‘Avoid December and January, those are the worst times, because despite being inside the Arctic Circle, the average temperature is 1 °C, so it’s usually cloudy and raining.”

Give Yourself Time

“The weather is a big uncertainty, so give yourself more time to account for cloudy skies. Ideally at least a month.”

how to take a photo of northern lights

Plan Your Trip

Do your research and plan your routes and locations ahead of time, and don’t limit yourself to resources designed for photographers.

“If you don’t have a good plan, you’ll end up sitting in your car deciding where to go while you miss the light show overhead.

‘There are so many great websites out there for travellers, so use them to your advantage. Detailed descriptions of hikes, GPS tracks… is this mountain safe to climb in winter? Do you need snow shoes? Is there fresh water and a place to set up your tent? They’re not always written for photographers, so keep in mind that you will have to carry your equipment with you, but it will give you a good impression. Usually they’ll feature a summit photo too, so you can decide for yourself if that particular mountain is worth the hike.”

Pack for Adventure

“It’s not just about having a camera. It’s more important to save your money for equipment that will keep you safe and relatively comfortable. An insulated jacket, polar tech pants, proper boots and snow shoes.”

how to take photos of northern lights

Make Use of Technology

Use a combination of mobile applications to pick the right evenings to head out into the mountains. A cloudy night will impact your shots, even if solar activity is high, so use a weather forecast app to maximise your chances. Similarly, apps such as Solar Sphere will tell you whether solar activity is relatively high or low. A smaller KP index means a smaller level of solar activity.

“In Lofoten, you only need a KP of about 1.5 or 2 to see a decent light show, if the weather conditions are correct. But if you have KP7 and a clear sky, it’s a good indicator that you could see something spectacular… although it’s still not a guarantee.”

Be Ready and Waiting

Even best technology can’t compensate for the unpredictability of nature.

“It’s not like you can say ‘hey, it’s six o’clock! Time to see the Northern Lights!’ You must be ready, and waiting somewhere in the mountains with your camera set up. But that’s the nature of being a photographer; if you want to capture a spectacular sunrise or sunset, you have to be ready before the show starts and do your best to capture the beauty as you see it.”

best northern lights photos- Martin Kulhavy

Know When to Take a Break

“Say you’ve climbed a mountain, and once you get all the way up there, you’ve got zero visibility because of the mist on top. Will you really feel motivated to hike all that way again tomorrow? I wouldn’t.

‘So choose your moments. If the weather isn’t working with you, save your energy. Rest, eat, sleep, download your photos, do nothing. Save your energy for when the weather turns.”

Northern Lights Photography Tips

It’s not just being in the right place at the right time, but having the right kit is important too.

“People often ask me what camera to buy; it doesn’t matter. Any camera is good. What’s more important is the lens. I can take all of my photographs with only one lens, and it’s the widest I have; a 40 millimetre Samyang.”

martin kulhavy northern lights photographer

As Martin specialises in panoramic shots, he needs to capture as much of the view as possible. He uses a sturdy but lightweight tripod with a ball head, enabling him to take multiple pictures of the sky and landscape in front of him. He usually takes six shots of the sky, and six of the landscape, for merging together later at home. The original resolution of each image is about 200 megapixels, giving the freedom to zoom in, change perspective and crop the image later.

“Basically the only parameter for me when taking a photo is where I need to put my tripod. The rest I can work on at home from the comfort of my chair.”

The second consideration is exposure time. Martin’s impressive Aurora Borealis photographs are taken with an exposure time between one and eight seconds, depending upon the individual light conditions. Always ensure that all photographs taken from the same position have a consistent exposure time, so that they can be seamlessly merged together later.

Pushing Yourself Further

photos of the northern lights in norway

Martin’s love for the area is clear, as he talks passionately about the dramatic landscapes and charming villages. It might not be the sun-soaked holiday destination favoured by many travel lovers, but for the keen photographer, it’s a treasure trove of unique opportunities. “Any mountain in Norway is worth the hike.”

For someone who firmly believes the best photographs aren’t about the camera, but the determination of the person who holds it, the challenges of the landscape are just as valuable as its beauty.

“The photographer must suffer; that’s my internal rule. And I can say, the Lofoten Islands will give you many opportunities to suffer! It’s steep, it’s high, it’s dangerous, it’s cold. But it’s worth it.

photography northern lights by martin kulhavy

“My personal experience is that I work better alone. I can push myself to do crazy things, like hike in the darkness with just a headtorch. Or scaling a mountain 450 meters above sea level, waiting in -15°c temperatures, walking back and forth to keep yourself warm… and there’s no guarantees the lights will show, or when they’ll appear. If it’s 10 o’clock at night and you’ve been waiting for six hours, you worry about the person you’re with. You have more reasons to say ‘let’s go home’. But when you’re alone, you can push yourself a little harder. You can say ‘another 15 minutes… another 15 minutes… and another.’ Everything I did was alone, and I don’t always like it, but that’s the price I pay for my photos.

‘Going to Norway to photograph the Northern Lights was my dream. But it’s not easy; you can have ten days of bad weather, clouds, low solar activity… then suddenly you finally see it! Suddenly you don’t feel hungry or tired or cold; it’s the dream coming true and you’re just busy taking photos.

‘It’s emotional. I’m not generally an emotional person, but it brings tears to your eyes. When you see something beautiful like that, you want to share it with somebody. That’s probably the biggest downside to being there alone.

‘But when I look back on my photos, I experience such a wide range of emotions; I remember every minute waiting in the cold, I remember the hope – like a child waiting for Christmas, and the excitement when I was finally rewarded. I still get goosebumps.”

aurora borealis by Martin Kulhavy

If you’d like to see more of Martin’s stunning landscape photography, you can visit his website at Martin.Kulhavy.info. Stay tuned for a look at the gorgeous CEWE PHOTOBOOK he made with his Northern Lights photographs coming very soon.


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